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Understanding Issues Of Land And Wealth For Indigenous Guatemalans

John Isaac
UN Photo

In 1996, Guatemala ended a 36-year civil war that devastated the country’s indigenous community. Seventeen years later, indigenous people in the Central American country are still seeking justice after the decades-long conflict.

“They agreed to sign not only a peace agreement, but also an amnesty law which says that all those people who committed human rights violations will not be prosecuted legally,” says Francisco Calí. He’s the only indigenous member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Half of the labor force works in agriculture, but most of the land is owned by a small, wealthy elite.

“The history of Guatemala has been that indigenous people don't have any participation in the sharing of the wealth of the economy in Guatemala,” Calí says. “Of course indigenous people had been participating in making that wealth, but not participating in the benefit of that work that they have done.”

The Kaqchikel Mayan says the solution to these political and economic problems is building trust, and broadening the understanding beyond the indigenous community.

“The indigenous people don’t want, as they are calling it, a reverse discrimination,” Calí says. “That is not the reality, but what we want to do is have justice and equality in Guatemala.


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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: José Francisco Calí Tzay, welcome to World Views.


GRILLOT: So you are from Guatemala...

CALÍ: Yes, I am from Guatemala.

GRILLOT: ...and you work on indigenous issues. Rights regarding indigenous peoples. What are the key issues regarding indigenous rights and the rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala that you focus on?

CALÍ: Well, actually in Guatemala specifically at this moment it's land problems. Also access to justice.

GRILLOT: So when you say access to justice you mean being able to have access to the procedures through courts and governments recognizing certain rights of indigenous peoples?

CALÍ: Both, because the thing is that, as you probably are aware, in Guatemala in 1996 finished an internal war that took place for 36 years. The people who had been affected by that war were mainly the indigenous peoples. Now they are trying to ask for justice, but they agreed to sign not only a peace agreement, but also an amnesty law which says that all those people who committed human rights violations will not be prosecuted legally.

GRILLOT: Will not be prosecuted.

CALÍ: Exactly.

GRILLOT: OK, so those who victimized the indigenous populations in Guatemala...when you say victimized, it was a bloody war, so...

CALÍ: Exactly.

GRILLOT: ...it was the indigenous populations that suffered significantly...

CALÍ: Exactly.

GRILLOT: ...and so those who were perpetrators are not being prosecuted and held accountable for their crimes.

CALÍ: Exactly.


CALÍ: So that's why now some indigenous people they are asking to prosecute those perpetrators but you know that in the history of Guatemala, a non-indigenous person hadn't been part of the decision-making power. So that's why until probably five, six years ago there [hadn't been an] indigenous person who was starting to get involved in the government institutions. But still very, very recently. So that's why indigenous people don't have any power to make changes in the legal system in Guatemala. They're not participating in the political parties. Economically, of course the history of Guatemala has been that indigenous people don't have any participation in the sharing of the wealth of the economy in Guatemala. Of course indigenous people had been participating in making that wealth, but not participating in the benefit of that work that they have done.

GRILLOT: So when you say that they haven't participated what is the ultimate source of that lack of participation? Is it the government keeping them out of being able to run for office? Being able to hold a seat or vote? What is the ultimate source of that lack of participation?

CALÍ: You know, as in all the Latin America countries, the state has been constructed on the basis of discrimination, and racial discrimination, against indigenous people. In Guatemala, before the so-called "democrative period" in Guatemala in 1944-54, indigenous people needed, as we called it, a "viability card" to be able to walk freely in the streets. It's a card that they needed to have sealed by the landowners to tell the police or the authorities that person had served, on the big farm or the big plantation, 180 work days per year. And if he or she doesn't fulfill those 180 days, they will be taken to a prison, obligated to work for the government, or returned to the big plantation to comply with the 180 days of work. Sometimes those plantation owners have not sealed those cards, so in Guatemala and I believe in other countries where indigenous people live, the same discrimination against indigenous people happened historically, so that's why the participation of indigenous people has recently been coming into the system.

GRILLOT: So racial discrimination being systematic and widespread - not only in Guatemala but I know you've worked internationally as well. Elsewhere in the region, elsewhere around the world. So this is something that you see in terms of the racial discrimination against indigenous peoples broadly. Can you speak a little bit more about that, and perhaps relate that to...you've mentioned access to justice. Human rights violations. But you also mentioned land. This is also a significant issue, right? Land problems, or rights to land. But how the broader issue of racial discrimination has an impact systematically across countries not just in Guatemala, but elsewhere.

CALÍ: You can see that in the education system in Guatemala or in all the other Latin American countries. You will see that the quality of education in Indian communities is so low that they can't even read and write the history that they have been thought is against their own culture. It's because again, the education is based on racism and racial discrimination. So the problem in not only in Guatemala but all the other countries where indigenous peoples live is people forget their history. Land and how it's connected to this issue is that when the Spanish came to the continent, they started to take the best land for cultivation. They concentrate the Indian people, especially in Guatemala, in the Western highlands of Guatemala or the north highlands of the country. It was not good land for cultivation, but in the 50s they discovered that land is very wealthy land, because they have minerals like gold, silver and copper that they can take from the land. That is why, again, they are trying to take these small plots of land out of their hands. The problem there is not only the access to the land, but if you wanted to have an economy for indigenous people, it's going to be impossible because our land is not naturally for cultivation. It's a forest land. And if you deforest it, or cut all the trees from the land, you are going to degrade the soil in that part of the country. So in 10-15 years we are going to have land that isn't good for cultivation. Many people believe that what the indigenous people are asking for is land reform, and that's why when you speak about land reform immediately they are just turning back their tape, as we say in Guatemala, and the fear of communists is starting to develop in their mind. Because only the communists are the ones who ask for land reform. But in the economy of Guatemala, if you don't make a land reform, and if you wanted to come to the moment of humanity that we're in now, the development in Guatemala is going to be impossible.

GRILLOT: So you've painted a very vivid picture of all of the issues and concerns that indigenous peoples are dealing with - from lack of quality education, lack of access to the justice system, violation of their rights in many ways, not only their right to life but their right to good property, and good land. So the issue then is what is the solution here? Because I noticed that you've worked with the government. You've worked with the government of Guatemala. You've worked with other international organizations, the United Nations and others. Are governments really the problem here? And if so, is this the way to go about solving some of these problems, by working within government? Or perhaps should the approach be working from outside the government and pressuring governments to engage in, as you say, land reform.

CALÍ: No, I think the main problem is Guatemala is the political system that we have at this moment. Of course, if we analyze very carefully the situation in Guatemala we are going to see that the corruption is not something that is taking place just now. It's historically in our country. The corruption is something that is affecting all levels of government at this moment. There's a former president that is in New York at this moment. He was extradited to the United States because he's accused of trying to deposit something like $20 million to American banks. Money that had been coming from the public resources. So I believe that is only one example of what level of corruption we have in Guatemala. I believe that it's not only land reform, because if we are going to have land reform, and give a piece of land to each family, we don't have enough land in Guatemala to give land to everybody. But the problem here is also that if we are talking about land reform, we are thinking that indigenous people are all farmers. But indigenous people are farmer, craftsmen...

GRILLOT: It's a much more diverse population.

CALÍ: ...they're intellectuals, exactly. It's the same as the whole society of Guatemala.

GRILLOT: So you need a broader approach. Not just land reform and giving indigenous peoples land.

CALÍ: Exactly.  But the solution of the indigenous peoples in Guatemala is the solution of the Guatemalan society. We have to see, as you said, in a very broad way solutions because there is a solution for the political problem that we are facing in Guatemala, but also I think that all of Guatemala has to participate. When we are talking about indigenous issues, the society of Guatemala believes that only indigenous people have to discuss indigenous issues. The reality is that we have to discuss all the issues that affect the society of Guatemala.

GRILLOT: So the society as a whole needs to come together to find proper solutions.

CALÍ: And one of the other problems also is trust. If I don't trust you, how can I sit at that table to discuss the situation? So what we need is to build that trust into the whole society. The indigenous people don't want, as they are calling it, a reverse discrimination. That is not the reality, but what we want to do is have justice and equality in Guatemala.

GRILLOT: Well Francisco, thank you so much for sharing your perspectives on this very challenging issue today on World Views.

CALÍ: Thank you.

Copyright © 2013 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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